Toronto Mendelssohn Choir: Canada’s Oldest Choir Stays Relevant

Denise Lai
La Scena Musicale, April-May 2022 issue

In his inaugural season as Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s (TMC) artistic director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée has deliberately programmed concerts with themes reflecting current world events. Here is a look at TMC’s remaining concerts of the 2021-22 season. Sacred Music for a Sacred Space, on April 15, features over 130 singers from the TMC and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in an all a cappella concert. The first part will feature Afrocentric spirituals by several composers including Nathaniel Dett, followed by All-Night Vigil (Vespers), which Rachmaninoff composed just before he left Russia for America. The program concludes with Prayer for Ukraine, an 1875 piece now being sung all over the world in support of Ukraine. The concert’s theme is human suffering, and the music is the common thread of “humanity’s belief that amidst the most adverse circumstances imaginable, a higher, transcending world is enveloping us, and that a strong voice is necessary to evoke it.” For Endangered, on May 28, Vallée has programmed pieces around the theme of creation and protection of the endangered world. The concert opens with Mamachimowin, by Cree composer Andrew Balfour, originally commissioned by TMC for and performed at its 125th Anniversary concert in 2019. According to Balfour, Mamachimowin (the act of singing praises) is a choral work that “explores the difficult relationship between Indigenous spirituality and the impact of the Christian culture on First Nations people.” Vallée explains that Mamachimowin is also a song of praise to creation; it uses soundscapes to depict the world being created right in front of the audience’s eyes. As a parallel to this theme, the choir will also perform Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, an a cappella piece with mezzo solo based on the book of Genesis. The concert’s main feature is the Canadian première of Mass for the Endangered by American composer Sarah Kirkland Snider. Although the piece is written in the form of a Latin mass, the text is based on a poem by Nathaniel Bellows. It is a prayer for nature and a call to action to save the endangered living beings and the land they inhabit. TMC’s Choral Conductors’ Symposium is a unique annual program that selects five emerging conductors to participate in workshops and master classes with TMC’s artistic leadership, and conduct the TMC in rehearsals which culminate in a free public concert. The symposium concert on June 28 will feature these five young conductors from across North America, presenting works by Caroline Shaw, Paul Hindemith, Laura Hawley, Roderick Williams, Benjamin Britten and others. This year’s theme is Meet Me Here: Songs of Sanctuary. It will be a musical reflection on the meaning of exile, displacement and finding sanctuary, which ties in with the theme of human suffering from TMC’s April concert.